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Spirit-Anointed Preaching and its Role in Revivals (1)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Much has been written in recent years on the subject of revivals, and a great deal of attention has been given to the extraordinary conversions that took place during those mighty movements of the Holy Spirit in the past. What also needs to be emphasized, however, is the key role that preaching has played in producing these conversions. While the new birth in all its manifestations must ultimately be traced to the Holy Spirit, it should be remembered that He generally works through the means, in this case the means of preaching by men especially endowed for that purpose. It was Spirit anointed preaching that led to such great ingathering of souls as the Great Awakening and similar events.

All true preaching is Spirit anointed, but when it comes to revivals we have to say that the preaching which led to these extraordinary phenomena was characterised by extraordinary outpourings of the Spirit, both on preachers and their audiences. Could we have been present at one of those services where Edwards preached or Whitefield, we would have known immediately the difference between the preaching we hear in our churches and the messages these men delivered. In some cases the difference may be one of content as well as delivery, but even where the content is basically the same, that is, thoroughly Biblical and Reformed, there would still be a noticeable difference. This difference can be summed up in one word: power.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones, in his book Preaching and Preachers, says that this power can come upon a preacher suddenly and it can also be withdrawn instantly. He mentions the case of a Welsh preacher, David Morgan who, after he had heard another minister preach with exceptional power, went to bed profoundly affected by this. He had been a faithful preacher for years but nothing much had happened as a result of his ministry. As he said later, "that night I went to bed just David Morgan as usual. I woke up the next morning feeling like a lion, feeling that I was filled with the power of the Holy Ghost." He began to preach with such power that people were convicted and converted in large numbers. This went on for two years and then suddenly it stopped. "I went to bed one night," he says, "still feeling like a lion, filled with this strange power that I had enjoyed for two years. I woke up the next morning and found that I had become David Morgan once more." He lived for another fifteen years exercising a most ordinar y ministry. Lloyd-Jones comments: "The power came and the power was withdrawn. Such is the Lordship of the Spirit! You cannot command this blessing, you cannot order it; it is entirely the gift of God... Revivals are not meant to be permanent, but I maintain that all of us who are preachers should be seeking this power every time we preach" (pp.322-324).

How does a preacher know he has this power? He will experience something similar to what the apostle Paul says in I Thessalonians 1:5: "Our gospel came not unto you in word only but also in power and the Holy Ghost and much assurance." Paul knew what was happening to him and so will everyone who experiences this. The apostle had much assurance. He knew he was clothed with power and authority. Lloyd-Jones, speaking from personal experience says that a person who has this power is given "clarity of thought, clarity of speech, ease of utterance, a great sense of authority and confidence, É an awareness of power not your own thrilling through the whole of your being, and an incredible sense of joy" (Ibid.). As for the people, Lloyd-Jones says,

they sense it at once; they can tell the difference immediately.
They are gripped, they become serious, they are convicted, they
are moved, they are humbled. Some are convicted of sin, others
are lifted up to the heavens, they know at once that something
unusual and exceptional is happening. As a result they begin to
delight in the things of God and they want more and more
teaching. They are like the people in the Book of Acts, they
want to continue steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and
fellowship and breaking of bread and in prayers (Ibid.,
p.324,325).

I have quoted the late Dr. Lloyd-Jones at some length because he was a solid and sober Bible scholar and student of church history. He had known preachers in his native Wales who had first-hand experience of revivals such as the one in 1905 and who themselves had been used by the Lord in powerful ways. Above all, he himself had on occasion preached with unusual power and unction, so he knew whereof he spoke.

Today few, if any, of us have any personal experience of the kind of revivals Lloyd-Jones refers to in his book. We may have attended so-called revival services, organized by local churches, featuring special speakers. Or we may have dropped in at places like the Toronto Vineyard Church where people bark and laugh and do all sorts of weird things. These "revivals" should not be confused with the mighty acts of God that took place during the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and similar revivals in the nineteenth and even the twentieth century.

True, these movements were not free from excesses either, but they were still essentially different from what today passes for revivals. The difference, I believe, has to do with at least three things: 1) the preparation for revival; 2) the characteristics of revival; and 3) the preaching during a revival.

As for the first point, modern revivals are planned events. Weeks and months in advance, meetings are held to organize and arrange these services, speakers have to be booked, choirs need to practice, ads have to be written and placed in newspapers, etc. Not so with the revivals of the past. There was a kind of preparation, but only in the sense that earnest prayer was made for the Lord to come down with power. When God answered these prayers, the revival still came suddenly and often unexpectedly as far as the exact time was concerned. It was clear to all that when revival came it was God's work and His alone. The sovereignty of the Spirit was recognized and the prevailing mood was one of reverence and solemnity.

As for the characteristics of revivals, the early revivals took place during the regular worship services in the local church. They were the result of the Holy Spirit doing an unusual work, first of all among believers. They were being revived or enlivened, quickened and awakened from a lethargic, sleeping condition. The very word revival implies that its subjects had to have life to begin with. You cannot revive something that is dead; only what is near dead, where the spark of life is in danger of being extinguished can be revived. That is what happened during the Great Awakening and similar revivals. Lloyd-Jones describes the effect of the Spirit's work upon such lethargic and half-asleep believers this way:

Suddenly the power of the Spirit comes upon them and they are
brought into a new and more profound awareness of the truths
that they had previously held intellectually and perhaps at a
deeper level too. They are humbled, they are convicted of sin,
they are terrified at themselves. Many of them feel that they
have never been Christians. And then they come to see the great
salvation of God in all its glory and to feel its power. Then,
as the result of their quickening and enlivening, they begin to
pray. New power comes into the preaching of the ministers, and
the result of this is that large numbers who were previously
outside of the church are converted and brought in. So the two
main characteristics of revival are, first, this extraordinary
enlivening of the members of the church, and, second, the
conversion of masses of people who hitherto have been outside
living in indifference and in sin. (The Puritans, their Origins
and Successors, pp.1,2).

Modern revivals, beginning about the time of Charles Finney, around the mid-1830's, were not so much revivals as evangelistic campaigns organized for the purpose of bringing souls into the kingdom. This is still what characterises revivals today. When people today speak of "holding a revival meeting" they mean an evangelistic campaign which requires a lot of planning and organizing before it can be "launched" as they say.

The most important difference, however, has to do with the kind of preaching that takes place at revivals. What is emphasized in sermons? What doctrinal truths are brought forth? The earlier revivals all took place in the context of Reformed or Calvinistic theology. Preachers like Gilbert Tennant, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were men of Puritan convictions and they held firmly to the theology of Dort and Westminster.

Later, due to the influence of men like Finney and others, revivals in America started to take on a decidedly Arminian-Pelagian character. A gradual shift away from free grace to free will took place and this has continued to this day. This is not generally known and history books continue to put men like Edwards, Whitefield, and Finney on the same theological level. As Iain Murray has shown in his book Revival and Revivalism, the differences between the earlier and later revivals in America are of a fundamental nature.

Spurgeon, in a lecture on The Ministry Needed by the Churches, says "great revivals of religion have always been connected with a revival of sound doctrine." Referring to the revivals in England during the eighteenth century, Spurgeon says that despite differences between Whitefield and Wesley on the doctrine of predestination, both did bring out clearly and distinctly the vital truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, such as the three great R's: Ruin, Redemption and Regeneration. "You could not hear a sermon from any of them," Spurgeon writes, "without hearing man described as a sinner, and the need of the Holy Spirit's work insisted upon in plain unmistakable language. You must be born again, was thundered over the land" (Banner of Truth Magazine, Issue 20, p.7).

This was also the doctrinal emphasis during the Great Awakening that shook New England and also later when the second Great Awakening took place in other parts of America. These doctrines, namely man's ruin by the fall, his consequent need of redemption by sovereign grace and the absolute necessity of the new birth, were not just preached during revival times. These truths were regularly expounded from the pulpits throughout America from the time of the Pilgrims and Puritans until well into the nineteenth century. Whether one attended a service in a Presbyterian church or worshipped among the Congregationalists, the Baptists or Dutch Reformed, Calvinism was the dominant theology. Exceptions of course were the Anglicans and Lutherans, but even there one could often hear sound preaching.

At any rate, the first revivals broke out in churches where Puritan theology was the norm, where the preaching focused on man's total depravity and inability to save himself and therefore on the need of a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to regenerate dead sinners to bring them to faith and repentance. Puritan preaching had a twofold objective: the conversion of sinners and the sanctification of saints.

Men like Edwards and Whitefield did not believe that the congregations they served were made up of true believers only. Had they done so it is doubtful whether revival would ever have taken place, because in that case everyone would have been under the mistaken notion that all was well. As long as both preacher and congregation are "at ease in Zion," the need for self-examination will not be felt, neither will there be a strong call to conversion. There certainly will not be urgent prayer for the Spirit of God to convict sinners and revive saints. Puritan preachers never laboured under such delusions. That is why they spent much time exhorting sinners to repent. They would remind them not only of their inability to save themselves, but also of their unwillingness to turn from their sin. In this way they sought to alarm the unconverted so they would cry out to God to save them. To such awakened and distressed sinners they would then set forth Christ in His ability and willingness to save sinners.

Throughout their preaching, whether they addressed the unconverted or believers, they were deeply conscious of the need for the Holy Spirit to work. Puritan preachers knew that they could accomplish nothing without the Spirit of God helping them. Today we may still acknowledge the same dependence on the Holy Spirit, but while for us this is often little more than a formal admission, for the Puritans it was a deeply felt conviction.

I believe that this is exactly why their preaching was so blessed. Even during "normal" periods, when the ministry was carried on without extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit, God's children were edified and sinners were saved. But whenever ministers detected a decline in vital godliness among professing Christians and that conversions occurred only sporadically, they would pray for revival. God often answered such prayers, with the result that "times of refreshing came down from the presence of God" (Acts 3:19 and the churches experienced things similar to what happened at Pentecost.

At such revivals, however, the preaching did not change as far as the content was concerned. It was not like this, that preachers now began to preach more evangelistically, addressing the unconverted, whereas before they had concentrated more on edifying believers. They had done both all along as we just saw. What was different, however, was that now they preached the same truths with more power and urgency.

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